Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Prokofiev, Love for Three Oranges

Prokofiev’Love for Three Oranges: what a bizarre opera, but delightful.

Still trying to digest it. Most of the plot summaries I have read don’t make a whole lot of sense. And my Russian is not good enough to figure the twists out entirely. But taking it for what it is, I had fun. Performance was good – singers and orchestra (although I do not care for the lead tenor, who also sang Grigory in the Schostakowitch version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov that I saw at the Gelikon in February, and sings with a pitiable voice rather than a nice one, possibly on purpose).  Denis Kirpanev was on the podium.

There is no “traditional” way to stage this opera, so pretty much anything goes. Given the plot, the staging was clear enough. I may have to see it again sometime with a different production to understand it, though.

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Stanislavsky Opera

Puccini, Tosca

Rousing performance of Puccini’Tosca at the Stanislavsky this evening.

Aleksey Shishlyayev, the weak-voiced Escamillo I panned last week in my Carmen review, turned into a strong-voiced and energetic Scarpia this week. Probably had something to do with a more sensible staging. The staging also allowed the other characters to sing and act, and we got an excellent performance from a very diminutive tenor (but not with a diminutive voice) as Cavaradossi, Mikhail Vekua.  Natalya Muradimova as Tosca also performed well, although a notch off the other two principals.

Wolf Gorelik, who conducted Carmen last week, was on the podium again. He too provided a good musical platform for the singers, and did not have to face down the audience this week (although the audience was a bit too quick to applaud long before the ends of acts, and there were conversations going on during the performance, it was not quite as random as at Carmen last week).

The staging reverted to the more normal suggestive stagings that the Stanislavsky usually puts out, without the director being on drugs as he appeared to have been for Carmen. These stagings do not detract from the performance, and merely provide a foundation if the cast is good (which it generally is at the Stanislavsky). That said, there were curiosities: some of the staging was inexplicably Japanese-inspired (furniture, paper lanterns, some costumes of random characters), although most was not. Most bizarre though was the shepherd boy at the beginning of Act 3. He appeared dressed as a sheep at the back of the stage, and lip-synched to a recorded version of the boy’s song, which was played from a speaker on the balcony. This made no sense, besides being musically disconcerting (the sound coming from a different direction than the character ostensibly singing it, the music over-amplification in a non-amplified live performance, and the lack of an obvious reason for it).

But on the whole it was a very satisfying evening.

Russische Staatskapelle, Moscow Conservatory

Mendelssohn, Mahler

The orchestra’s name doesn’t translate into English very well, but does translate into familiar German. Here it was conducted by its chief conductor, Valery Polyansky, who was quite good (first saw him in March conducting the Conservatory Orchestra for Verdi’s Requiem).

He had the audience’s undivided attention thanks to the flamboyantly gay announcer who trotted out on stage to read the program (the Conservatory does not seem to do this at every concert like the Tscahikowsky Hall, but does do it sometimes – not this particular flamboyant announcer, just some announcer to read the program aloud; mostly they are not remotely flamboyant). This guy stared down someone on the balcony whose mobile phone went off and ordered him to turn it off because it was rude. Needless to say, everyone else in the audience who had not been bothered to turn off their phones also did so at this point. Then he stopped talking and glared at anyone who dared shuffle in their seats, and waited for them to settle down before continuing to state the program. Actually, maybe they should get this guy to come out to read the program for every concert – I don’t remember the last time I saw an audience behave so well.

Anyway, on to the music:

The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Violin and Piano. The violin soloist, Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky (who may possibly be the son of conductor Gennady R. – certainly about the right age), was supposed to have been the soloist a week and a half ago with the Bolshoi Orchestra, when I believe he was stuck elsewhere by volcanic ash. So I now got to hear him. He is good, but uses too much vibrato and so his tone was a bit over-sweet (but much better than the violinist who replaced him at the Bolshoi Orchestra concert). The pianist was Vladimir Ovchinnikov, who was also very good. The Mendelssohn is a pleasant piece, but there is not much more to say about it.

After the intermission (and reappearance by the announcer to ensure order) came the reason I went to the concert: Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. There is something about the way Russian orchestras perform Mahler – it has to do with the Russian tradition of playing wind instruments, which gives them a different timbre than in the West, and which works to put extra edge on Mahler’s angst. I think it works better on Symphonies 4 and later, but it is OK for the first three.

It was a rousing performance. Polyansky obviously has a good feel for Mahler. I liked his conducting. The orchestra was far from flawless, but did put effort into it. The chorus was also in full form. The soloists were nothing special, though: the mezzo, Lyudmila Kuznetsova, had a embarrassingly thick Russian accent in her German, and the soprano, Yelena Yevseyeva, although better, was hard for me to take seriously because she obviously shared a make-up kit with the announcer, and over-applied the make-up as much as he had.

Moscow Chamber Orchestra “Musica Viva,” Moscow Conservatory

Pergolesi, La Serva Padrona; Stravinsky, Pulcinella

What fun!

The first half of the program consisted of Pergolesi’s short comic opera La Serva Padrona, paired after the break with Stravinksy’Pulcinella (complete score), which was of course inspired by Pergolesi (or, as we now know, inspired by what he thought was Pergolesi, which in fact was not by Pergolesi but itself inspired by the early Classical composer, so it could be said that Stravinsky’s work was inspired by music inspired by music by Pergolesi).

Conductor Aleksandr Rudin understood the difference – he conducted the Pergolesi from the harpsichord with true classical style and feel. For the Stravinsky, he comprehended what Stravinsky was trying to accomplish: not to write early 18th-Century music in the 20th Century, but rather to update that older music using more modern techniques and compositional developments. Rudin knew how to emphasize the edge Stravinsky gave to the music, and to draw out the contrasts and modern harmonies.

The soloists also got into the spirit. Their voices would probably not fill a proper-sized opera house, but in the Conservatory (even the Large Hall) with a chamber orchestra, they were full enough.  Wolf-Matthias Friedrich (bass) especially stood out with his good humor and clear (albeit Germanic) diction.  Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo) and Stanislav Mostovoy (tenor) sang the other roles with gusto.

Presidential Orchestra of the Russian Federation, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Beethoven, Weber, Grieg

The Presidential Orchestra is the house orchestra of the Kremlin. Nothing special, just good music.

Concert included Beethoven’Egmont Overture, the overtures to Weber’s Freischütz and Oberon, and the Grieg Piano Concerto.  Anton Orlov conducted, Sergey Tarasov was the piano soloist. Tarasov was good.

After two concerts there, though, I’m not sure I care for the Tschaikowsky Hall. I find the Conservatory a much nicer venue.

The acoustics at the Tschaikowsky Hall are fine (neither especially good nor bad), and there are good sight-lines in the amphitheater layout. But the parterre is a little bit too sunken. Last night and today I sat in the lower amphitheater seats, behind the parterre, but even that was not very elevated. The result is that there is actually an obstructed view from most seats – the obstruction being the orchestra itself. To see over the first row of the orchestra, you need to be sitting in the upper amphitheater, which is actually quite some distance away from the stage.

Other quirks: totally inadequate cloakrooms, which are also laid out bizarrely so that the coat checker has to disappear into the back to find the coats and then re-emerge, which takes forever. They also bar the exits, so there is a huge bottleneck of people trying to leave (because of security, they make people enter through only two doors where they can inspect bags and wand suspicious people, but that is true in most venues in Moscow and not everyone arrives at the same time; other venues then open all the exits at the end of the performance so that everyone can get out at once, though). And they seem to hire people to read the program out loud before each piece – why have programs? This is just tiresome.

Moscow State Symphony Orchestra, Tschaikowsky Concert Hall

Glass, Tschaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvořák

Tonight’s concert of the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra was under the baton of Pavel Kogan, and opened with the Philip Glass Violin Concerto #1, my first time hearing this piece. The tone was nice, but – like most Glass – it never went anywhere. Glass should stick to movie scores, as his music makes good background music and portrays a certain tension, but should never be the focus of anyone’s attention.

As for the soloist, I could probably say the same thing about her as I have said about Glass’ music. She’s a 23-year-old Brit, Chloe Hanslip. Like the Glass concerto, her tone was good but did not go anywhere. Kogan did his best to keep the orchestra playing quietly, but she was still barely audible. What I could hear of her sounded fine.

For the second piece, the same soloist came out for Tschaikowsky’s violin concerto. I think between the pieces someone must have mentioned to them the problem with the dynamics, because Kogan was clearly making the orchestra play even more gently pianissimo than in the Glass piece, and she turned her own volume up a few notches. Unfortunately, when she turned herself up, she flailed at her violin and also lost her tone, making her playing now sound forced and unpleasant.

She came out for a solo encore. I did not hear her when she announced what it was, but it sounded like the Tschaikowsky again, but this time disfigured and rewritten for the Devil’s fiddle. She used the same forced technique she used for the Tschaikowsky concerto. Certainly her unpleasant tone was indeed appropriate for this ugly piece.

After the intermission, having thankfully dispensed with the soloist, Kogan could take the lid off the orchestra for Rimsky-Korsakov’Sheherazade. This may be a warhorse, but it is always fun to hear live performed by a good Russian orchestra. The solo playing was very good, particularly the extensive violin solos by the concert master (Gayk Kazazyan). They should have let Kazazyan play the solo parts in the concerti before the intermission rather than importing the British woman.

The concert concluded with a bunch of spirited encores: a Slavonic Dance by Dvořák and some ballet music I couldn’t quite identify.

Stanislavsky Opera

Bizet, Carmen

Carmen at the Stanislavsky tonight.

I suppose even the Stanislavsky is allowed to have off days. Musically it was fine if not special. The Micaela (Natalya Petrozhitskaya) and José (Dimitry Polkopin) were both very good. The rest of the cast was mostly middling. The Escamillo (Aleksey Shishlyayev) was rather weak-voiced. And although I find French an ugly enough language as it is, I have discovered that it is even worse when sung and spoken with thick Russian accents.

The orchestra was fine. However the audience seemed fond of clapping inappropriately. It clapped not only when the conductor came out, but also after the first note of each act. And it clapped whenever there was a fermata. And it clapped randomly at other points for no apparent reason. The conductor (Wolf Gorelik) was obviously annoyed and kept turning around on the podium to stare down the audience every time it started clapping. Oddly, he continued to conduct when he did that, with his back to the orchestra. If he had guts he would have just stopped conducting and waited for people to behave before carrying on.

The Stanislavsky does not usually do elaborate stagings, but suggestive ones. I find that their suggestive stagings generally work. However, the only explanation I have for tonight’s staging is that the director was high, and kept doing more and more of whatever drugs he was taking as he moved from act to act. For a suggestive staging, I have no idea what he was trying to suggest.

In the first act, the girls from the cigarette factory all came out wearing 19th-century undergarments. I do not think that is how even gypsies dressed to go to work in Seville back then. There seemed to be some sub-plots going on which do not appear in the text, but were put front and center. I was not sure what was happening.

The second act tavern scene cannot really be described. The (male) tavern keeper flirted with Don José, apparently to warm him up for Carmen. Then he got onto the bed (bed!?) with them, but seemed more concerned with fondling José than making it an actual threesome.

The third act is supposed to be set in a smugglers’ hideout in the mountains. This one was set at a building with a big colonnade. The smugglers appeared to be smuggling hay, which was handed down from the roof of the colonnade in bales throughout the act. Goodness knows why. The smugglers themselves were dressed like monks. This act also contained perhaps the worst-choreographed knife fight (between José and Escamillo) I have ever seen on stage. Seriously, if they want to have the two jumping around the stage and stabbing at each other for five minutes, then there must be better ways to arrange this.

In the final act, someone should explain to the director that at bullfights, the male spectators wear normal clothes (for their period in time) and the bullfighters wear bullfighting costumes, because this director had it backwards. The stands were filled with men dressed like bullfighters and women who had obviously just stepped out of a pre-revolution Goya painting. Then Escamillo and the other bullfighters arrived to fight bulls in street clothes. Then Carmen showed up dressed like a slutty secretary (a sort-of off-white business suit with lots of cleavage and a mini-skirt), and José came wearing a black suit with a white shirt and no tie. When he finally killed Carmen, he draped her over the railing. And since no one else came back out on stage, as they are supposed to at this point in the opera, I suppose his plea to be arrested was addressed to the audience. Or maybe to the conductor. Who knows.

Throughout the entire opera, they left a wind machine on in the back of the stage. This caused parts of the back of the set to blow around. The wind machine was also clearly audible whenever the music was even moderately quiet.

Oh, well. Beats sitting at home.

Bolshoi Opera Orchestra, Moscow Conservatory

Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss

The conductor (Gennady Rozhdestvensky) and soloist (Aleksandr Rozhdestvensky) did not make it (I presume they are stuck somewhere because of the volcanic ash which has shut down most air traffic in Europe), so the concert was not as advertised.

Mikhail Granovsky, a youngish (30s?) conductor, took over the podium.

The concert started with the Overture to LiebesverbotWagner’s early opera. The Bolshoi Orchestra strings sounded like mush, as though someone miked them and turned up the speaker volume too high. Despite that, the winds actually overpowered them anyway. But instead of a balanced sound, I got to hear new secondary and internal lines in the music, and so at least I learned new parts of this piece. I just kept having to deal with the uncomfortable noise coming from the strings.

We then got two Beethoven romances for violin and orchestra. The soloist was Mikhail Tsinman, who teaches violin at the Conservatory. He took a while to get into tune. Certainly had not gotten there before the end of the first romance. By the second romance he wasn’t so bad. If I ever hear him perform again, however, I will remember to arrive late to give him time to get his act together.

After the intermission came the Simfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss. This was worth sticking around for. Granovsky had the orchestra under control for this piece. The strings were still a bit mushy, but he managed to de-emphasise them sufficiently. The winds (both woodwinds and brass) produced sumptuous sounds. A worthy performance.

Gelikon Opera, Arbat Theater

Janáček, The Makropoulos Affair

The Makropoulos Affair by Janáček at the Gelikon-on-Arbat.

The Gelikon Opera is still performing temporarily in a very small theater while its own home is being renovated. This setting (minimal stage, full orchestra pit, seating on one level – no balconies – with only about ten rows and thirty seats per row) gave the performance an added degree of intimacy.

Musically it was very good, as expected from the Gelikon. The production used traditional costumes, but with such a tiny stage there was not much room for a staging, so it was a bit abstract. Still, it was thoughtful, meaning it added to the understanding of the plot, and therefore worth staging and not doing a concert version despite the sub-optimal conditions. Clearly the director had thought about this. Also likely that the director had never been to the opera in Germany (thankfully).

The program advertised that Gennady Rozhdestvensky would conduct, but he was not there. Vladimir Ponkin took his place.